Clinton models himself as a soft-stick, big-talk Teddy Roosevelt

February 24, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Now that Bill Clinton is barred by law from seeking another term, it's natural that he will want to shape his remaining time as president to assure him a high standing in the history books.

He talked grandly during last year's campaign of ''building a bridge to the 21st century'' and repeated the imagery in his State of the Union message. But in place of any grand vision for the next four years, he seems devoted to incredibly small-bore ideas that cast him more as a benign small-town mayor than the chief executive of a great nation.

Thus, in his recent radio address he talked about improved safety standards for child car seats. This certainly is a matter of considerable concern to parents, but it is hardly the stuff of which historical stature is made. The same can be said for other proposals more suited to the chairman of a parent-teacher association, such as mandatory school uniforms and time off the job to attend PTA meetings.

While the fund-raising arm of the Clinton operation is revealed as having thought and acted in grandiose fashion in the 1996

re-election campaign, tapping into foreign sources everywhere from Indonesia to Guam, Mr. Clinton is painting himself in his second term as a kindly caretaker. Micro-initiatives like car-seat standards are not, to be sure, the centerpiece of his agenda, but they are part of a conspicuous public-relations effort to remind voters constantly that Bill Clinton cares for you -- and your kids.

This is a low-cost, clever continuation of the strategy devised by departed swami Dick Morris: Keep the voters happy with cotton candy while not risking controversial initiatives that could erode his popularity. But popularity for what?

There is no sign yet that Mr. Clinton is marshaling his resources with the voters for some major undertaking that will earn him a leading place in the history books, although he has talked in recent times of where history might place him, repeatedly mentioning Theodore Roosevelt, who used the Oval Office as bully pulpit for issues of prime import.

It has been said that Mr. Clinton may go through two complete terms enduring the same curse that supposedly afflicted the first Roosevelt -- having served without a major crisis like a war to test his greatness. But even without one, Teddy Roosevelt acted as if there always was a crisis that required his vigorous response.

At the end of his presidency, he wrote to British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan: ''While president I have been president, emphatically. I have used every ounce of power there was in the office and I have not cared a rap for the criticisms of those who spoke of my 'usurpation of power,' for I know that the talk has all been nonsense. . . . In showing the strength of, or in giving strength to, the executive, I was establishing a precedent of value.''

A steward of the people

Roosevelt also wrote in his autobiography: ''My view was that every officer, and above all every executive officer in high position, was a steward of the people. . . . I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.''

Mr. Morris in his recent book tells of a phone conversation with the president last summer in which the two mused about where Mr. Clinton might fit in on the roster of presidents. Mr. Morris put him in a third tier, below Teddy Roosevelt in the second, but said he thought Mr. Clinton could make the second tier if he could ''make the presidency permanently concerned with non-economic lifestyle issues.'' That's what Mr. Clinton seems to be up to.

The president himself has referred to TR as playing a critical role in moving the country from an agricultural into an industrial era, and suggesting he will now move it more vigorously into the informational age. That may be so, but so far he bears little resemblance to his tough-talking, big-ideas predecessor.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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